75 Years After Hiroshima
Real Peril, Real Hope
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75 Years After Hiroshima: Real Peril, Real Hope
As the world marks the 75th anniversary of the ending of World War II with the dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki, what have we learned?
Consider this disturbing account concerning a nuclear test explosion nine years after Hiroshima. On the open Pacific Ocean, it resembled a mystical apparition arising opposite the morning sun. Roused from sleep, the Japanese crew of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru tuna boat crowded on deck to witness a bizarre fireball expanding over the western horizon. A short time later, as the radiant cloud billowed higher into the morning sky, a puzzling fine chalky material began raining all over the ship and the crewmen. The baffling precipitation lasted three hours, sticking to human skin and piling up on deck.
The fine dust, known later as shi no hai (“ashes of death”), was highly radioactive coral debris, which had been pulverized and blasted into the atmosphere by the then-secret 15-megaton Castle Bravo test (America’s largest thermonuclear weapon at the time).
Covered with the deadly ash, the entire crew fell ill with radiation sickness. Seven months later, the ship’s chief radio operator, Aikichi Kuboyama, died of complications from the radiation, becoming the first victim of a next-generation hydrogen bomb. Nine years after Hiroshima, a Japanese citizen was again the victim of atomic weapons.
Since the first test explosion in July 1945, an astonishing 2,056 nuclear devices have been detonated by nine nations. What has this produced?
The Castle Bravo nuclear detonation described above caused the worst radiological disaster in U.S. history—worse even than the former Soviet Union’s Chernobyl accident—raining radio-active debris nearby and in lower levels over much of the world.
In 1961, Soviet military nuclear scientists exploded the largest device in history—the incomprehensible 50-megaton “Tsar Bomba”—chilling even the hardiest of people at the height of the Cold War. Test after nuclear test has blasted massive earthen cavities and heaved multiple tons of radioactive debris into the atmosphere.
Today some 15,000 nuclear weapons exist, with about 9,400 in military arsenals (the remainder are retired or technologically obsolete, awaiting dismantling). Russia holds the most at 4,300, with the United States not far behind at about 4,000.
And what about other nations with operational nuclear weaponry? Besides Russia and America, publicly known nuclear weapons are held (or capable of being produced) by the United Kingdom, China, France, Israel, Pakistan, India, North Korea and possibly Iran.
All this raises the specter of the unthinkable happening—a worldwide nuclear holocaust. Experts estimate that between 100 million and 270 million people would horrifically die within the first hours of a full-scale mutual thermonuclear exchange between Russia and the United States—to be followed by the complete extinction of humanity within a few years.
This leads us to consider: How in the world did we get here? And, more importantly, where do we go from here? Do we face the future with despair or with hope?
Technology arms race—75 years ago
Here’s a short history.
The sailors who caught a glimpse of the enigmatic metal box being welded to the deck of the U.S.S. Indianapolis on July 16, 1945—the same day an atomic bomb was first successfully tested 1,100 miles away in New Mexico—had no idea what its mysterious contents held. As they sailed out of San Francisco Bay, few knew that onboard was a high-tech weapon that would instantly incinerate some 70,000 people in Hiroshima 20 days later.
The weapon was the result of an unprecedented technological, industrial and manufacturing leap. Six years earlier, a letter written by Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard and signed by Albert Einstein changed the course of human history. In early 1939, German scientists had formally confirmed the discovery of nuclear fission. By literally “splitting the atom” in a sub-atomic chain reaction, enormous energy could be released.
Alarmed, several European and American physicists and other scientists were deeply concerned. After a delay caused by the German invasion of Poland, the now-famous Einstein letter finally made its way into the hands of President Franklin Roosevelt on Oct. 11, 1939.
Roosevelt understood the gravity of the situation immediately. The Nazis could not be the first to develop an atomic weapon.
The president promptly set in motion what became known as the “Manhattan Project,” eventually employing more than 120,000 people, to build the first operational nuclear weapon.
Nearly six years later, the New Mexico test with a dense sphere of 13.6 pounds of plutonium-239 heralded in the nuclear age. On July 16, 1945, the “Gadget,” as the test device was called, produced a destructive 22-kiloton blast that shattered windows more than 100 miles away in America’s sparsely populated Southwest.
20th-century nuclear war
The first use of an atomic weapon in warfare commenced a few weeks later on August 6. A modified B-29 Superfortress bomber dropped the first such bomb (named “Little Boy”) on Hiroshima, a Japanese city of some 340,000 people with industrial and military significance.
At 8:15 a.m., 141 lbs. of uranium-235 explosively slammed together, blazed supercritical and detonated at 1,900 feet above the city. Around 30 percent of the populace, 70,000 people, were instantly killed by the blast and radioactive fire. About 70 percent of the city’s buildings were annihilated, even though only a fraction of the uranium (1.7 percent) actually reached critical mass. Thousands more later died painfully of radiation poisoning, burns and related injuries.
The next day President Harry Truman confirmed both America’s new nuclear capacity and the bombing. In a radio broadcast, the president said: “The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima . . . We knew that our enemies were on the search for it. We know now how close they were to finding it. And we knew the disaster which would come to this nation, and to all peace-loving nations, to all civilization, if they had found it first . . . We won the race of discovery against the Germans.”
“The danger of total destruction”
Yet, even then, the American president recognized the deadly threat such weapons posed to all of human civilization. He warned: “The atomic bomb is too dangerous to be loose in a lawless world. That is why Great Britain, Canada and the United States, who have the secret of its production, do not intend to reveal that secret until means have been found to control the bomb so as to protect ourselves and the rest of the world from the danger of total destruction” (emphasis added throughout).
Two days later, loaded with the plutonium-fueled “Fat Man” bomb, a second B-29 flew over the Japanese city of Nagasaki. The 11 lbs. of plutonium went supercritical at 1,650 feet. At least 35,000 Japanese civilians died instantly in blazing radioactive horror.
Japan formally surrendered a few days later. In his broadcast of capitulation, Emperor Hirohito recognized the new nuclear threat’s potential of the “total extinction of human civilization.”
The Soviet Union then quickly accelerated its nuclear research program, aided in part by Soviet spies who had infiltrated U.S. top secret research facilities. Four years later, the world reeled in shock on Aug. 29, 1949, at the first successful Soviet nuclear test. Three years after that, the United Kingdom, as a joint participant in the American Manhattan Project, independently detonated its first nuclear weapon in a remote area of Australia.
The deadly nuclear arms race was on.
Importantly, ominous words from the Bible now powerfully came to life. Jesus Christ had foretold a “time of calamity” so destructive that, if not stopped, “not a single person will survive” (Matthew 24:21-22, New Living Translation). The potential expressed in these ancient words had now become reality!
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, many were gripped by anxiety over the threat of nuclear devastation. Millions of school children practiced survival drills. Public “Fallout Shelters” were stocked and openly marked. Families built bomb shelters. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev almost daily threatened potential atomic war. The United States and Soviet Union faced down each other in a war of words and of nuclear deployment. Missile sites with operational nuclear weapons were established in Turkey by America, then in Cuba by the Russians. Nerves were frayed. Live nuclear exchanges were barely avoided.
Today, the perceived threat of nuclear war has faded. Even the fabled Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has been shifted in some of its focus to the threat of climate change.
Even though many express grave concern about the potential threats of nuclear terrorism and atomic saber-rattling by small nations like North Korea, others seem more worried by pandemics like the coronavirus or economic recovery. As Foreign Affairs magazine recently declared, people seem “willfully blind to the peril” of nuclear-fueled extinction.
But the threat certainly remains. The international Union of Concerned Scientists issued a new call for peace for the 75th anniversary of Hiroshima. It formally reads in part: “Nuclear weapons are the ‘weapons of the devil.’ They could wipe out the human race and all other creatures. They could destroy the environment and turn the globe into a dead planet.”
The short-term threat is real
Nearly 2,000 years ago, Jesus was teaching His disciples from the Mount of Olives overlooking the Kidron Valley and the magnificent Jerusalem temple. As He presented His longest recorded prophecy (Matthew 24), He had much to say about our present age.
He outlined a critical sequence of events that would lead to global disruption and cataclysmic upheaval, as noted earlier. But it certainly wasn’t all bad news. This coming traumatic time, rendered in some English translations as “the great tribulation,” would be resolved by the spectacular establishment of the long-awaited Kingdom of God.
Indeed, this Kingdom, the ultimate hope of all humanity, will be ushered in with the open triumphal return of Jesus—then as King of Kings and Lord of Lords—to the very mountaintop from which He was then speaking.
The events Jesus described, as well as many other dramatic statements throughout the Bible, tell of tumultuous and massive upheaval, even the death of billions of people. Only the use of nuclear weapons matches the horrific scope of what is often described.
Why is this important? These times are ahead of us. If trends continue and nations and people continue to move away from the revealed truth of God, life will grow very difficult—even to the point of literal human extinction. But you and whole communities, even whole nations, can seek to turn their lives around, focused on what God has revealed. (See “Can a Nation Turn Back to God?” on page 26.)
Difficult times lie ahead. But there is real hope—hope beyond a nuclear doomsday. May God speed His coming Kingdom!
Can a Nation Turn Back to God?
God makes His standards of behavior—and the consequences for violating those standards—crystal clear in the pages of the Bible. God demonstrates time and again that His standards of behavior—summarized in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) and what Jesus Christ described as the two “great commandments” (see Mark 12:29-31)—exist for the good of humanity. When practiced, they lead to a far higher quality of life, both now and in the life to come.
God allows free will, the capacity for men and women to make choices. God invites, even commands, people to choose life and the pathway that leads to life. But He allows people to make wrong choices—and suffer the consequences, even through succeeding generations.
Much of the Bible represents a call to action to turn to His way of life, both on a national scale and individually.
Happily, the Bible records several instances where people—both collectively as a nation and personally—heeded this divine call to action. People chose to give up their old way of living and began to “think differently”—the Greek word translated “repent” actually meaning to change one’s mind. When they changed the way they were thinking, surrendered to God and reformed their behavior, amazing things happened.
But is this limited to God’s chosen nation of Israel? What about other nations or peoples?
God’s standards are omnipresent. His way of life is a living way. And the Bible records God’s intervention and pronouncements involving empires and countries large and small. Moreover, God has preserved a specific and important example of another nation humbling itself before Him.
This example is that of a major economic and societal power of biblical times—ancient Nineveh. Nineveh represents one of the oldest and greatest cities of the ancient world. It served as the capital of the Assyrian Empire, reaching its zenith around 700 B.C.
But during that time, in the face of the cruel actions of the city and its inhabitants, God sent a prophet to declare the depravity of the city’s transgressions and announce coming divine judgment. His instructions to the prophet are preserved for us: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2, English Standard Version).
God sent the prophet Jonah, whose mission and existence was validated by none other than Jesus Christ Himself (Matthew 12:39-42). Jonah came to that great ancient city and declared its soon-coming demise: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4, ESV, emphasis added throughout).
Then something amazing happened: “The people of Nineveh believed God” (verse 6). Alarmed at the prospect of suffering vast destruction, the entire city—“from the greatest of them to the least”—took part in a citywide fast. The people were committed to showing God they were willing to change. The king even issued a proclamation commanding the city’s inhabitants to “call out mightily to God” (verse 8). His directive? “Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.”
Even though Nineveh’s doom had been declared, the king hoped: “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish” (verse 9).
The result? “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it” (verse 10). The people of the great city of Nineveh presented themselves before God in a repentant attitude and were spared!
As Jesus Himself confirmed, “The men of Nineveh . . . repented [changed their mind and behavior] at the preaching of Jonah” (Matthew 12:41, ESV). Jesus does not refer to the “fairy tale of Jonah.” He confirms that everything in the book of Jonah is real history—it really happened!
The same is true today! Any nation or peoples—whether in the Americas, Europe, Asia or Africa—can save themselves by turning to God. “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live” (Ezekiel 18:32, ESV).
Even though the Bible prophesies economic calamity and widespread destruction before the return of Jesus Christ, God provides a way out or through. While these words were specifically given to Israel, they apply to all of mankind: “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14, ESV).
What about you? Don’t wait for others in your nation to turn and seek God. As the apostle Peter urges you and everyone in Acts 2:40 (ESV), “Save yourselves from this crooked generation!”